Finding Martha's Vineyard

by Jill Nelson
Portraits by Alison Shaw
Published by Doubleday
Available through

A celebration of this magical island through the voices, photographs, remembrances and recipes of African Americans who call the Vineyard home. Illustrated with black-and-white portraits by Alison.

“In this elegant book of photographs, personal narrative, memories, and fascinating historical detail, bestselling author Jill Nelson conveys the special magic of Martha’s Vineyard and the African Americans who have summered or lived there for generations. Nelson has been a summer and occasional year-round resident of Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard for nearly fifty years. It was where she learned to swim and ride a bike, first kissed a boy, became a writer, and, during twenty-eight summers, raised her own daughter. In Finding Martha's Vineyard, Nelson offers a lively, intimate portrait of a place that has provided respite and rejuvenation, community and contemplation for generations of African Americans.

Part memoir, part history, Finding Martha's Vineyard describes the various groups who settled in Oak Bluffs: the black middle-class families who came each summer to escape the heat, hostility, and racial tension of their hometowns; the domestics, and other African Americans “in service” who accompanied their white employers to the island in the 1920s and 30s and over the years established a haven complete with community centers, civic organizations, and exclusive clubs for themselves and their descendants; and the fourth- and fifth-generation African American professionals — doctors, lawyers, presidential advisors, writers, and artists — who visit or live on the Vineyard today. Nelson interviews the Cottagers, the proud owners of Oak Bluffs’ famous Gingerbread Victorians; members of the Polar Bear Club, a die-hard group that swims together every summer at 7:00 A.M.; and such famous residents as Vernon Jordan, Spike Lee, Bebe Moore Campbell, and Stephen Carter.

Finding Martha's Vineyard is about the power of place in our lives. A rich treasury of reminiscences, excerpts from news articles and documents from the Martha's Vineyard Museum, recipes, and glorious photographs, it brings the sights, sounds, celebrations, and social importance of the island community brilliantly to life.”
    – from the Doubleday 2005 catalog